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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
Headphones have come a long way in the past few years and they keep getting better.
We are stoked by the array of audiophile headphones available today. Here is our headphone.com staff-curated list of high-end headphones we rate as the best of the best for 2018. They're all superlative headphones guaranteed to keep your ears happy for a long time to come.
The Focal Utopia is the most accurate, dynamic and revelatory listening experience in audiophile headphones. It competes with the Sennheiser HD800S transient quickness and soundstage depth while bolstering the low-end with a warmer but textural and taut bass response. Like a headphone teleportation device from the future, the Utopia beams into the inner reality of the music. It allows you to get completely lost in sound - making the headphones disappear. In a rare display of corporate unanimity, the Utopia is our favorite headphone this year - and maybe ever - for the entire team at headphone.com.
The direct competitor to the Focal Utopia at the same price ($4,000), the planar magnetic LCD-4 has a low-octave authority and perfectly controlled musical horsepower like no other headphone. The LCD-4 places the listener on stage at the center of the music with a dynamic explosiveness and low-level resolution that will make you well up with emotion. However, it’s power-hungry and requires a great headphone amp to control its torque and make it truly sing.
Easily the best HiFiMAN headphone yet, the Edition X V2 is beautifully balanced throughout every part of the frequency range with a lovely combination of potent punch and easy airiness. It's incisive access to tiny nuances hidden deep in the music is astonishing. It’s also among the lightest of all high-end planar magnetic headphones and comfortable to wear for long sessions. The Edition X V2 is efficient too, unlike some high-end HiFiMAN cans of yore.
The first electrostatic in-ear headphone system, the KSE 1500 burrows deep inside the music with an intensely energetic presentation and microscopic detail resolution power. The tone-shaping EQ in the KSE 1500 DAC/ADC/amplifier unit offers ample listening flexibility to dial in a totally personalized sound. It’s a major electrostatic design breakthrough resulting in the most expansively layered and well-imaged soundstage heard to date in the in-ear headphone category.
The little brother of the Focal Utopia, the Clear conservatively gets you 85% to 90% of the Utopia’s world-beating transparency, clarity and lightning-fast dynamic extension at only 50% of the cost. We think its the best value in audiophile headphones priced under $1500. The Clear is beautifully engineered inside & out and an unmitigated audio delight for a discerning music lover. Highly recommended.
Unquestionably the best sounding, best-performing noise-cancelling full-size headphone on the market in 2016. Daily commuters and frequent fliers who are not keen on using excellent isolating in-ear headphones should get this battery-powered (‘active’) NC headphone into their travel bag. The QC35 makes any voyage a peaceful musical respite.
The freshly updated version of the German-engineered dynamic headphone that originally set the high-end audiophile world on its collective ear, the HD800S improves the bass response a tad but keeps the same tremendous soundstage imaging depth and blink-of-an-eye dynamism that wowed us back in 2009. It can still sound a bit overly clinical or dry with certain sources so good synergy with your music and audio gear is critical to maximizing the liquid presentation and solid acoustic presence of the HD800S.
An impressive down-the-middle neutrality and smooth, accurate tone brings this open-back planar magnetic headphone into our top audiophile contenders. A well-calibrated combination of punch and precision make this the choice for both audio professionals and music-addicted audiophiles. The 2016-updated LCD-X 'Fazor' edition is also fairly easy to power from a wide variety of sources, not something we can say about many of the other high-end headphones on this list.
- Honorable Mentions -
The Mr. Speaker Ether (Flow)
Our headphone.com review team really enjoyed the original 2015 Mr. Speakers Ether planar magnetic open-back headphone, engineered and built by Dan Clark in San Diego CA. However, the Ether was significantly updated with the new Mr. Speakers Ether ‘Flow’ edition, which regrettably we have not been able to hear or review as of yet due to limited Flow availability. Please look for our analysis of the newest Mr Speakers Ether Flow headphones on these pages very soon.
Sennheiser HE1 / Orpheus II
Our headphone.com team managed to get our grubby ears on one these vacuum tube, chrome and Italian marble artworks of audio overkill at a headphone show early this year and it was indeed exquisite. But as of now, it's not available for sale in the USA so the Sennheiser Orpheus / HE1 remains essentially high-end headphone vaporware. Who knows, maybe David Beckham bought them all. For an expected $60,000 give or take, our champagne wishes and caviar dreams await.
If you can afford the Focal Utopia, feel safe to skip the rest of the list. We're confident it will leave you satisfied for years to come. If you're on a budget and value practicality (wireless and portability) it's the Bose QC35 all the way.
Do you agree with our list? We'd love to hear your thoughts below.